Women increasingly ready to speak out about abuse, family violence

September 26, 1991|By Susan Baer

On her first day as Miss America, Carolyn Suzanne Sapp came down to the cameras waiting on the beach at Atlantic City wearing a T-shirt and shorts and a radiant smile, ready for the pictures of innocent sensuality that is the image of her role. "There she is," as the song puts it, "your ideal."

But on the second day, her private life intruded. There were news reports from her home state of Hawaii that Miss Sapp had been abused by an ex-boyfriend, a former NFL football player, that he had beaten her and tried to strangle her and that she had sought protection from the courts and the police. That news has dominated all her days since, and unpretty though it is, the newly crowned beauty queen has said she'll continue to "acknowledge it and address it."

After a one-day honeymoon, Miss America 1992 had become more than the "ideal" picture of the American woman. She'd become a real picture.

More and more women -- from beauty queens to anonymous hot-line callers -- are speaking up and speaking out about violence that they have suffered, reporting crimes to authorities and seeking help and justice rather than hiding in quiet shame, say psychologists, sociologists and women's health experts.

"Women are feeling a lot more sure of themselves and a lot less tolerant of being victims of violence," says Gloria Gay, associate director of the Penn Women's Center in Philadelphia. "When people like Miss America come out and talk about their abuse, it gives other women permission to talk about theirs."

The new Miss America said she had gone to authorities and broke off her relationship with former pro football player Nuu Faaola after "waking up and saying, 'This is not for me. This is hurtful and painful.'"

"I finally realized I was a strong person and an independent person," she said from Atlantic City. "No one needs to be in a relationshipthat's abusive.

"But it's hard because emotionally, you love that person and want to trust them."

Miss Sapp is not alone in such experience. Increasingly, celebrities and public figures are talking openly about abuse they've suffered either as children or adults. Miss America of 1958, Marilyn Van Derbur Atler, disclosed in May that she'd been molested as a child. And numerous entertainers including Tina Turner, Oprah Winfrey and, most recently, LaToya Jackson and Roseanne Barr Arnold have told similar tales.

Many believe this new phenomenon of celebrity confessions goes a long way toward dispelling some of the stigma and shame associated with being a victim of such crimes and helping other women grapple with similar problems.

Miss Sapp says she's heard women say, "If Miss America can have this in her life and have the strength and courage to get out of the situation, so can we."

The big-headline cases, too, such as boxer Mike Tyson's recent indictment on rape charges and last year's Central Park jogger trial, often give women more courage to speak out, mental health experts say.

"These well-publicized cases are quite important in the public's mind in determining, 'What kind of treatment might I get?' " says Dr. Mary Koss, professor of psychiatry and psychology at the University of Arizona. For instance, she says, seeing that the Central Park jogger -- the New York investment banker beaten and raped by a gang in 1989 -- was able to preserve her anonymity and dignity throughout the trial of her attackers "encourages a lot of people to seek justice and come forward."

On the other hand, the case in Palm Beach, Fla., in which William Kennedy Smith is accused of rape, could deter women from bringing charges if the character and reputation of the alleged victim -- whose name has been revealed by several news organizations -- become the focus of the trial, she says.

One senior at the University of Pennsylvania who claims to have been raped by an acquaintance in her freshman year said she never considered bringing charges. "I watch TV, I read the paper. I don't see any point in it," said the 21-year-old sociology major. "I see me having to go through more trauma. It may be 1991, but women are still accused of provoking the violence toward them."

But Donna Drejza, 31, who successfully brought charges against the man who raped her in her Washington apartment in 1987, said she has seen sweeping changes in attitudes toward rape and abuse in just the past year. Last year, when she started coming forward with the story of her attack, friends asked, "Why would you ever talk about it?"

This year, after she wrote a first-person story about the rape for the Washington Post, appeared on a television morning news show and has been speaking to women's groups, her friends are congratulating her on her courage and wisdom.

Along with the tremendous growth in programs for women -- everything from women's studies departments at colleges to shelters for battered women -- many say the social, political and economic strides made by women in the last 20 years have given women the freedom and courage to speak up.

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